Rare Gift

Ngoepe would be first black South African in the majors





PITTSBURGH—Gift Ngoepe, attempting to become the first black South African in the majors, got the tiniest taste of the experience when called up from minor league camp as a reserve in two exhibition games for the Pirates this spring.

His passion for the game showed, too, as he fairly bounced while taking grounders alongside Ronny Cedeno and Delwyn Young.

"I'm very happy to be here," Ngoepe said afterward, smiling wide.

Other than a bit of extra enthusiasm—to be expected of a 20-year-old who grew up in an amateur team's clubhouse in South Africa and learned the game while his mother cleaned the uniforms—he hardly stood out. He used his 5-foot-10, 165-pound frame to cover plenty of ground at second base and showed the range and athleticism that the Pirates feel gives him a shot to make legitimate history someday.

But there is work to do offensively: Ngoepe batted .238/.341/.281 in his first professional season, in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, and other than two triples off Elmer Dessens in a World Baseball Classic game last March, did not show much.

He began tinkering with switch-hitting last summer and will continue that this year in the GCL, though farm director Kyle Stark is leaving open the possibility of a late-season promotion to low Class A.

"Gift needs to continue to develop consistent habits since switch-hitting is relatively new for him and continue to demonstrate some plate discipline," Stark said.

Ngoepe returned to South Africa in the offseason, where he spent some time coaching youth clinics. Because of his high profile there—Sports Illustrated and other major outlets documented his baseball journey last summer—some of those children were seeking his autograph and other keepsakes.

On the impact of the SI story, Ngoepe said: "The whole world read it, probably, but it doesn't have to change who you are. You have to stay the same. I'm having fun."

Treasure Trove

• Neil Walker, the Pirates' No. 1 pick in 2005, will be a utility player for Triple-A Indianapolis in an attempt to avoid a roadblock at third base with Pittsburgh starter Andy LaRoche and top prospect Pedro Alvarez. Walker, drafted as a catcher and moved to third base, is playing second base and right field.

• The Pirates remain intent on keeping Alvarez at third despite draft-time concerns about a thick build. Alvarez wants to stay, especially after a dedicated offseason training regimen.